By Yun-hua Chen.
Every time we meet the standard expectation of what the film should be, or shouldn’t do, we kind of push it a little harder until it comes to this devastating end. I think a lot of people aren’t always prepared for it.”
In The Long Walk, the director Mattie Do, together with her husband, scriptwriter, and long-term collaborator Christopher Larsen, tells a story that is intrinsically Lao in a sci-fi setting of time-travelling. An old Laotian hermit dissembles and collects metal fragments for a living, and his only friend is a ghost who has accompanied him on the long walk back home for half a century. It is a time when e-payment is done directly through the implants on people’s wrists, and skyscrapers of the nearby city are visible yet remain the unreachable elsewhere. The Laotian hermit time-travels back to his childhood to revisit the time before her ailing mother’s death, spends time with a young woman who needs his help after the disappearance of her demented mother, and maintains a routine of making offerings to spirits.
The Long Walk is an unusual film in many respects. It is a genre film that flirts with arthouse cinema, the first Lao film to screen theatrically in the US, from a filmmaker that is the first and only woman director in Laos. It is also a film that blends sci-fi with horror, thriller, and drama, a story about regret without repentance, wrongdoing with no revenge. It is a labyrinth with many entry points and many paths, a puzzle that does get assembled in the end, and a courageous attempt to make a unique film that tells a local story with a universal approach. The Long Walk is a refreshing anti-cliché, very dark, and self-consciously rejects the usual expectations for a South Asian film.
Mattie Do has generously and extensively shared her thoughts with Film International.
The Long Walk feels like a puzzle with a lot of pieces to be put together. There is time travelling, a serial killer, and there are also horror, thriller, sci-fi elements. It is also an arthouse film that deals with the themes of bereavement, regret, and isolation. How did all the elements come together?
I am not the kind of filmmaker that sits around considering what kind of genre I’m going to make. I find it really strange when filmmakers sit around and say things like, I’m going to make a horror film with ghosts, or, I’m going to make an action film, or a romance. I think, it should be fine to just have a story unfold organically without any kind of definable borders, right? That’s how humans really tell their stories. When we’re telling each other stories, we’re not telling each other the categories of our stories.
So, this is not something that we really thought about. When we have a story, we’re mainly focusing on the characters, the problems that they’re going through, and the situations that they’re in. All the extra elements, like science fiction, ghosts, or time travel, are just kind of like icing on the cake, right? What everyone’s really paying attention to are the characters.
Was that how you develop your script with your husband and scriptwriter Christopher Larsen, first with the essentials, and then the icing?
My husband is very much the structure and the skeleton of the script. I believe that the hardest thing in filmmaking is when you get a script done and that script is flawed. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing in production, or in post production. That’s your roadmap, and if that roadmap leads you to a dead end, you’re screwed even if you have the best cinematography in the world.
So, I usually give my husband an idea, the initial idea to work on, and then he starts to develop it with me, and we bounce. We flush it out together, but he’s the one who’s actually writing it and getting the structure in a way that’s cohesive and comprehendible. And then we both go through it and try to find cracks in the story, or flaws that need to be fixed. We would go through more than four drafts before we have what we have that you see on screen.
The initial idea of the story was kind of a satire of arthouse film because I just really got sick of so many people who are cinephiles or experts telling me what Lao films should be or coming to a festival or a screening with this idea of what Lao films should be. In fact, I’m very lucky. Laos is a tiny country, and our industry is extremely tiny, and I do have the liberty to make any kind of film I want to make because of that. But I see this with films from the African continent, South Asia, and East Asia. It’s like, people want this specific kind of arthouse films with sage and mystic Asians who say obscure and mysterious things for the sake of ambiguity because you know, those Asians just understand the world differently from the rest of the occidental. They have to have the style that nothing is very apparent, and nothing is concrete. And you’re not even sure what you just watched. Maybe what you just watched was 30 minutes of people staring at the window.
And this is not authentic to me. And sometimes I wonder, like, when people demand an authentic story from the place, have they ever been in my country? Have they even experienced anything from my country? Sometimes when they want to question the authenticity of my film, they have not even been there. I find it ironic. What I’ve begun to understand is that what people on the outside means by authenticity means poverty, brown people on dirt roads suffering. And if they’re not suffering, they’re one with nature in a way that no no one else can understand. They are surreptitiously ambiguous, mystic, and Asian. And I’m sick of it. Why can’t we have science fiction in Laos? We’re a developing country, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have technological advances. Why can’t we have a serial killer film set in Laos? Who’s blocking me from doing that? And then I realised that, if there is anyone standing in my way, trying to build walls around and decide what kind of films Laos should make, I’m going to shatter those walls.
So, it is kind of a satire on the typical arthouse film because as you see, it does feature dirt roads, village huts, and a mystic Asian. But it does it in a way that, I hope, flips the expectation upside down. And while we were writing the script, we lost my dog Mango, and a lot of our sadness, and our grief seeped into the script itself. My husband had never lost anyone human in his life, but I had lost my mother, and then I had lost my dog. A lot of these things really wrecked me. It was very easy for me to work and put the emotions that I had in the script with my husband. So, that kind of intimacy that you feel in the film, that kind of sadness and despair that’s dripping through the film is from actual grief that both my husband and I were going through while we were finishing the script. It changed a lot of the initial draft of the script. It made the script a lot darker than it initially already was.
Going back to the notion of “authenticity” that you mentioned. In film festivals there are always different trend and labels, like “Southern Wave”. How do you think about all this labelling, these expectations, and the way some filmmakers actually work with the system?
I worry about how filmmakers work with the system because I have heard young filmmakers in our region in Southeast Asia saying that they want to make a “festival film”, and I don’t understand what this means. Of course, all filmmakers would love to have our film selected at a big festival that had the laurels, and festival experience is fun. But that’s not what they mean when they say “festival film”. They mean that they realize that sometimes there seems to be an expectation of what gets selected. And so, in the end, they’re not really making the film that they want to make, and they’re just trying to make something that they think will get selected. That worries me a lot. I think it’s kind of a vicious cycle.
I’m not blaming any festival or any filmmaker for this process. Festival programmers do love to discover new content, something that hasn’t been done before, or something that’s unexpected. But at the same time, they’re kind of beholden to the audience, right? The audience has this expectation of what they think they’re going to see. As festivals have to be able to sell tickets, they also have to consider that. So, there’s this weird, almost like self-cannibalization of the festival. We all want to discover, and promote something wildly new, something valid that has merit. And then there’s the audience that has a definite idea. I hear audience saying all the time things like, oh, I love Asian films, but there is a wide range of Asian films. A film from Mongolia is not going to be like a film from Indonesia.
And then you see filmmakers scrambling and trying to get into festivals. They might have a strong idea that there’s certain flair that they need to imitate, or certain ideas that they should be projecting that are maybe not exactly what they want to do. It worries me a little bit because I don’t really think of films on terms like that. I found films by accident. I never intended to be a filmmaker. And because of that, if I don’t have an idea that I find personally interesting, or an idea that I feel has a reason and a need to exist, or a story that’s unique and hasn’t been done before, then I won’t do it. What’s the point if someone’s already done it better?
How did you assemble those puzzle pieces in your film?
For us, it was always difficult to make sure that everything ends up working. So, we charted each event that was happening, and we knew where it needed to be at the end. We worked through the scope in my mind, but how they get there is the main conundrum. And every time we started to chart events of the boy and the man getting towards that end, we have to think about how each person’s timeline would affect one another because of course, they’re weaving through each other, and there would be ripple effects. The most fun part of working on that together with Chris was not only about how it could make sense but how we could push it even farther. We like to see how far we can move it, for the audience to still be able to not only follow it, but also to get titillated and excited. Every time we meet the standard expectation of what the film should be, or shouldn’t do, we kind of push it a little harder until it comes to this devastating end. I think a lot of people aren’t always prepared for it.
In a way those tropes kind of work to my advantage because people are so used to tropes in science fiction, horror, and time travel that if you break those tropes, respect the audience, it can be a really fun roller-coaster ride. And, you know, I love that you describe it as a puzzle, because I always tell people that it is a puzzle and all the pieces are there. I was about to hand you the box, but I decided to throw the pieces up into the air and all around the room. But if you work really hard, you can find your pieces.
Is this how you imagine the post-apocalyptic time to be?
It’s post-apocalyptic because of Lau entropy. I mean, if you walk out right now to the outskirts, that’s what it looks like. The main intention of setting it in a period like that is to show that as much as we develop, as futuristic as we can get, there are still people who are suffering or poor. I mean, this human condition never goes away just because we have flying cars and teleportation tubes. This is what I think is really disappointing. When I was little, you know, in the 80s, we believed that 2022 was going to be Blade Runner futuristic, with silver buildings, glass tubes that can support us, and spaceships to Mars for vacation. And it didn’t happen.
What has changed in the course of 60 to 65 years or so? I shot my second film Dearest Sister (2016) in one of those wooden houses. And I thought, this is 2015, and I’m in Laos. And this family lived in this house, with chickens running around. They only had an electric outlet on one side, just for a refrigerator, but otherwise, they were still using kerosene lamps and building fires outside. It’s kind of a harsh, scathing commentary. As much as the world can advance, we can get chips embedded into our arm, social and community advancements seem to be stagnant. And sadness never goes away. Grief never goes away. Poor decision-making continues to remain in the developing world.
In the film, you can see the skyline looking super urban, almost like a Bangkok-, Singapore-style metropolis, but we never go there. It’s there in the horizon, just hanging over the character like some crumbs of a dream, but he could never reach it. It’s so far that it doesn’t even factor into his life and his existence at all. Besides travelling through time, he’s almost living out of time. That’s the reason why I wanted to have this kind of landscape. Plus, if I had done it in the present, and we travel back to the past, the budget would have been too high because of all kinds of costumes needed.
I’d like to believe that horror audiences are more sophisticated and savvy than even cinephile audiences. They would just accept that in horror the cultural norms are not like theirs and they’ll go with it.”
This circularity of timeline is fascinating. As you said, he was travelling through time, but also outside of time. His past, present and future are interwoven, and so are the worlds of the living and the dead. These concepts are intuitive and natural in Asian culture, but not for the Westerners. How did you translate this regional specific philosophy into something universal in your filmmaking?
As it is a horror film, people embrace things that they wouldn’t normally understand and are open to something new. It is a genre about the unknown. Whereas in a drama, the audience treats it almost like it has to be verified and has to be real. Horror is a vehicle that allows me to share these intricate facets of our culture, our traditions, and our religion. It also allows me to push it to the extreme and to exaggerate certain things and to have fun with it.
The horror-film audience would watch anything from anywhere. They’re so open. I’d like to believe that horror audiences are more sophisticated and savvy than even cinephile audiences. They would just accept that in horror the cultural norms are not like theirs and they’ll go with it.
You moved to LA as a child from Laos, and then moved back to Laos as an adult. Does that affect your filmmaking? And how was the second-time migration for you?
It affected a lot. I’m so lucky that I could share my culture, traditions, my country’s stories and event, and that people could see it on screen. If I didn’t do it, some non-Lao person might do it and they might do it wrong. You’ve seen it before, like, random white dudes coming to other countries and making a supposedly Chinese film or supposedly Thai film, and it’s just not accurate, and they’ve missed something because they aren’t well-versed or well-cultured enough in that country. As I’m travelling back and forth, I get to ride both horses. I have my foot firmly in the middle of this fence. When Westerners visit my country, there are certain things that they’ve never encountered before and that they don’t get. I have the chance to show it to them in a way that they can understand it, because I’m also American, and I understand them. On the other hand, because I am a Lao, I know how Lao interact and sound sounds like inside the closed door within a family. So, the Lao people can also be represented in a way that’s the way we really are. There are a lot of personal details in The Long Walk, such as oranges and offerings on the altar.
Another issue that I see with Lao filmmaking is sometimes young filmmakers have this idea of what they think the outside world wants from them. Like, we have to exotic, or we have to show this ideal Lao woman. Being from the outside, as well as being from the inside. I know that that’s not necessarily what anyone wants. No one wants to watch propaganda, you know, it’s not palatable.
People give you all kinds of labels, like “the first and only female maker in Laos”, or “the first horror director in Laos”. How do you feel about that?
I think it’s kind of funny sometimes. Here in Laos, they call me the “First Lady of Lao films” [laughs]. The reality is that anyone who makes film here is going to have labels because everything would be a new entry in the arena of cinema. I can make a film about a horse tomorrow, and it would be “the first horse film”. So, for me, it’s not a big deal.
What I do take very seriously is the burden of how I represent Laos on screen. These films are seen worldwide, and I know I’m coming on to the screen with my bias and my perspective, which is of course my right as a filmmaker. But I want to try as hard as I can to show my perspective and my experience in a way that feels true to me on screen, so that it’s not coming through some foreigners lens like we were zoo animals or something. You see that a lot and I dislike it very much.
The fact that you could be the first in anything you make in Laos, does it give you a lot of freedom?
So much! If you are in a place where a variety of films have been made already, you might feel really burdened by what you can or cannot do, or you might be told that something is too risky to do and that it wouldn’t work. In Laos I don’t have any of that. All I have to care about is censorship. Like, don’t make any negative statements about politics – I am not very interested in that so it’s ok. Don’t make pornography – I am not a pornographer. The hard one is probably not to have a subject that is too offensive to anyone. They are really worried about portraying anyone in a negative way. As my films are super dark and scathing, and this is something we are constantly discussing; it’s OK to make commentary, and it’s up to the audience how to read it. I kept telling them that I was not planning to influence anyone. Every society has problems, and I am not arrogant enough to claim that I have answers. At the beginning the government was really nervous because I put really heavy subject matters on the screen, but now they understand it better.
This negotiation process with the government is interesting. You also helped create the foundations of a film industry in Laos. How did you balance between creative energy and dealing with film politics?
It’s part of the job here. People who just have to focus on their creative part and don’t need to do negotiations with the government are very lucky. The dossier I give to the government is a lot thinner than the documents I write for European funds though. There would just be a synopsis, a treatment, and then a script. It’s quite straightforward. If I didn’t work with the department of cinema and try to make them understand what I am making, I couldn’t make my film. I also produce films as well and bring filmmakers from other countries to film in Laos as co-production. I told them that if they are going to be so strict to the extent that they would discourage filmmakers from making films in Laos, they would make us lose jobs as filmmakers and they would also lose jobs because they wouldn’t have any scripts to censor or read; they wouldn’t be able to collect money for film permits. We are good friends in that regard. They know when I come to their office, there is going to be another Lao film happening and it will keep them engaged. They also know that I am not setting out to portray Laos negatively or to be a chaos bringer.
Do you think these negotiations might be able to change censorship in Laos somehow?
When you look at my first film, my second film, and then this film, you can see the build-up. In the first film they were worried about ghosts. Mainland China is really close. They sometimes look at how censorship works in the mainland China. At that time ghosts were not allowed in mainland Chinese films, so Laos feels that you might be pushing people to believe in supernatural beings. It was a hot day in Laos. I was in the office of the department of cinema, and there were ropes tied around a tree as offerings to the spirit shrine outside, for blessing. I was like, I am not really influencing anyone there, am I? Lao people already believe in spirits. In the second film they were worried about the scene of a married couple kissing because they are not married in real life: “what would people say?” In the end they let them kiss. In this film, the murder and violence really worried them. I said, you were worried that someone might imitate the killing in my second film and it would increase violence in the society, but it never happened. No one ever got their head bashed with a shovel because of my film.
I really like Matthew Macar’s cinematography, which focuses a lot on the details of daily chores that the main protagonist goes through. And Anthony Weeden’s soundscape. You also work with Chatchai Chaiyon, who was the producer and costume designer of Manta Ray and producer of Anatomy of Time, both films I really like. How did you assemble such a team together?
It’s super random. Originally, I had a Thai DOP with whom I worked for over a year, and we have been prepping for months. And then we shot one entire week, but it was just not how I wanted for the film. The communication was very difficult. Thailand was so established, and Laos was like their country pumpkin cousin. The way I communicated is very different from a filmmaker who is trained in a film school. I communicated on emotional level, and I treated the camera like a character. I would never say what lens you should use, but I would say the camera needs to be tense and nervous, so I want the camera to be very close and have the feelings of breathing with the audience. That kind of communication didn’t work for many DOPs. So, we lost our DOP one week into the shoot, and I went through so many DOPs’ reels and meetings online in-between spouts of crying. When I met Macar, it was through recommendation of two directors Justin Benson and Asron Moorhead, who directed Syncronic (2019). They said that he was someone who was young and hungry with beautiful aesthetics. He really understood me, so I was literally like, how fast can you come? Within two weeks, he and his AC arrived in Bangkok. As the previous DOP took the camera with him because it was a rental from there, we rode a motorcycle taxi across Bangkok to buy the equipment to be able to continue filming. And then we shot from the beginning again in Laos.
Anthony Weeden is one of the conductors of Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. He came to Asia with Royal Philharmonic for a tour. They were in Vietnam, and the British ambassador in Laos was like, if you are in Vietnam, how much would it cost to bring you to Laos and play a concert in Laos as well? So, the British ambassador organized for them to come, and I was invited as a guest and was introduced to all these people. Anthony orchestrated Jóhannsson’s score to Sicario (2015) and for other composers but wasn’t able to compose music for his own film yet. When the concert was over, there was no more alcohol as the British Ambassador had stopped the party early. They were like, where can we go? Can we go to some pubs or something? The British Ambassador was like, I am not going out to party with them; can you help show them a good time, Mattie? So, I took them out, and I told him the story of The Long Walk. He said that “I would love to help you in any way”, and I was like, “I don’t have a composer yet; are you interested?” We were tipsy, so I thought this was not happening. When they returned to London, we sent emails to each other, and I sent my script to him saying that I don’t consider our words that night binding, and that I would like him to reconsider it. And then he read the script and said that he would love to be the composer.
I am still working with him. He is so experimental and classically trained.
I imagine that you need a lot of creative solutions during filmmaking in Laos, right?
Yes, that’s how it is hard for the foreign crew to get adjusted. We just don’t have a lot of things that other countries have. You might be used to using this kind of tools or equipment or having luxury on set. They just don’t exist. We are working with a budget of 200,000 dollars in a jungle. We have what we have. That becomes an adventure and a challenge, but we were really open to it. For instance, Chatchai was completely fine with it. He is from Bangkok. Although he is very much of a metropolitan Bangkok boy, a lot of his films were set in rural parts of Thailand. The challenge for him was just not having access to certain things he needed. Normally in Bangkok we would have bought ten brand new shirts and then wore them down to look authentically old, but in Laos we are using real things. If we need a house, I don’t need our team to make the wood look old. We purchased a house that was about to be demolished, demolished it piece by piece and numbered the pieces, and then built it on our set. In a way the things that we are missing are conveniences and efficiency. The things that bring value to our production that other productions can’t have are incredible though. If you find a way to face the challenge, then it is even more enriching.
Being trained as a ballet dancer and having worked as a make-up and hair artist on set, do you feel that your diverse experience helped you have a fresher perspective regarding filmmaking?
I don’t want to say fresh because everybody brings something fresh to a film. I think what I have is the lack of knowledge of what could and could not be done. In a way I sort of broke the barrier that people built around themselves because they were taught that there should be a barrier, or this is too difficult or challenging. They are not obstacles that I face because I don’t think they are obstacles, or I don’t know there are obstacles. The DOP of my second film Dearest Sister, Mart Ratassepp, was sometimes frustrated because it was just him and he didn’t even have an assistant camera. Usually, I have this sick confidence that I should not have, and it is because I was not trained to have the lack of confidence or to be intimidated by certain things. This is what I have, this fearlessness.
But then I am scared that with more experience, the more I see, and the more I learn, I am going to start having trepidation.
Is that also why you work with non-actors in your films, and sometimes repeatedly?
It feels so natural for me to work with non-actors because I am not coming from a technical point of view. I don’t know acting techniques. We are talking to each other on a human and visceral level. They can give me the emotional responses I want and need because the way we discuss it is the way anyone could understand it. It becomes a fun environment too. If you see us on set, we are so casual, familial, and friendly. There is no weird status, like, I am a director and have this special director’s chair, and I get special meals over here, and the crew and team members over there. None of that. We all put a mat on the ground. All of us eat together. I make sure my crew finishes eating before going back to work, and we all clean up the set together. This usual hierarchy on a film set is really upsetting to me. In an American set where I once worked, after shooting the director would just go back to his air-conditioned hotel. For me, this is so wrong because we are all working on this together as a team, and it is important to all of us. So, I am the first to arrive on set, and I make sure that I don’t leave until everyone is finished, and I am the last to leave.
Do you think it is easier to achieve that level of equality on set because of the filmmaking situation in Laos?
Yes, I think so. It’s always been like that for us, and I hope that it stays that way. It’s wonderful to be able to still want to see each other after a long hard day of shooting. Tension sometimes arises, and it can get stressful. For us, no matter how stressful it is, once all the equipment is put away, we still love to have dinner together, crack a beer open together, and hang out before we all go back to our respective hotels. It’s wonderful.
How would you like to explore your filmmaking in Laos further to get the voices out from Laos?
Honestly, I want every kind of film to be made in Laos, not just my films. I do think that sometimes there is that idea that I can’t make a film until I have this much budget, or I have to make a certain kind of film. I’m very open to mentoring and working with young filmmakers, and I think some of them don’t come to me because they feel intimidated. Some of them who do come to me have this idea that they should have this huge crew with matching t-shirts and a billion assistants, you know, like the Hollywood dream. And I’d tell them, no, if you’re going to wait for that, you might miss your opportunity to make the film you want to make. If you want to make a crazy action film, find a way to do a smaller version of it first. The first film is like a kind of proof that shows that you can get through it and complete a film. It can be super flawed. You can work with very little money. And then when you get a little bit more money, you can improve your storytelling, and you can fix the mistakes that you previously made.
The world of filmmaking is not so transparent. There’s no easy way to say, this is how you become a filmmaker, but I do try and support as many new filmmakers as possible, and also my crew. All my local crew members have been trained from an internship position. My line producer, who runs the whole set and makes sure everything is working, I call her my boss, actually started out as a caterer in my first film, delivering food and so. This is what I hope to add to Lao films. Even if they can’t make films themselves, or add their voice to a story, they’re part of the making of the film.
As for the new voices, this is a long haul for us. This is something that we still have to work on. What stories need to be told? But this is not a problem unique to Laos. This is a problem for filmmaking in every country. Like, how many American and German and French films have you seen that you’re just like, boring, right? Like, they are stories that did not need to be told. And then how many stories have fallen through the cracks and have not been discovered yet? This is a problem that I see everywhere in filmmaking. I hope that part of my work as a filmmaker is that I can help new filmmakers as well. I am working as a producer already and would really love to produce horror films with new filmmakers in Laos. I’ve had the opportunity to produce some other films that happened in Japan or in Thailand, but I want to do genre films, if possible. It’s not necessarily to be in Laos all the time, but I hope that I can bring some of the people I’ve trained to Laos and bring back experiences that we have gained from other sets outside of Laos. That would be so fun.
That would be an amazing ecosystem…
Yeah, it’s a strange ecosystem. Sometimes it’s depressing because it’s so little and so new. It’s a little unpredictable. Film is already a risky career, and life is already so short. I realised that after my mother passed away; she wasn’t even 50. When she passed away, I was like, why not take the risk. We have one life to live, so we may as well try. I think I would really regret if I do not at least make an attempt to tell as many stories as I can, any story that I find interesting, and to be able to find some new voices, to be able to promote them and help them behind the scenes. I’m direct and blunt when I help them because my Russian ballet teachers were all extremely direct. If they tell you something was bad, it is bad, and you just have to make it better. They aren’t going to compliment you if you give them something mediocre in a ballet class. And so, that’s how I treat young Lao filmmakers. I have built a very special team for myself; they’re used to working in this kind of environment where we’re very direct, very forward. But for young, Lao people, that’s still really difficult. They’re really used to having their hands held, their ego stroked by their teachers, and that sort of things. I think that the people who come to me now know that my words are direct because I care. I hope that the people who do come to me feel it and that when their work comes out, they’ll feel like it’s something that they’re proud of because they worked and collaborated with many people to get to that point.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021.